The Colosseum

By Barbi, Guiomar | The World and I, September 2007 | Go to article overview

The Colosseum


Barbi, Guiomar, The World and I


On July 7th, the New Seven Wonders of the World were announced in Lisbon, Portugal. Chosen as a result of a global popularity poll, organized by the New Open World Corporation, more than 100 million votes were cast by Internet and phone.

Among the new wonders were the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal. My personal favorite, the Roman Colosseum.

Standing right, smack in the middle of the Eternal City, this grand amphitheater is one of the greatest works of Roman architecture and engineering.

Located slightly east of the Roman Forum, construction on the Colosseum started between 70 and 72 AD under the emperor Vespasian. The structure was to be a present to the Roman people and was to be constructed in the place where the previous Emperor Nero had built his residence, the Domus Aurea.

The arena had been completed, up to the third story, by the time of Vespasian's death in 79AD. The building was finally inaugurated, after the top level was finished, by Vespasian's son, Titus, in 80AD. The chosen location was a level region that rested between the Caelian, Esquiline and Palatine Hills. Constructed in the city center, the Colosseum differed vastly from other amphitheatres that were typically located on the outer edge of a city. It emblematically stood, and still stands, at the core of Rome.

The open-air auditorium was originally used for gladiatorial matches and public programs. The matches, called munera, were put on by individuals and not the state. While every program contained a religious component, they were mostly organized to exhibit familial power and social status. In fact, it was obligatory for the ruling class to coordinate the games in order to keep the citizens content as the munera were extremely well liked among the residents of Rome.

Gladiatorial games were not the only events that were held in the Colosseum however. Another popular type of show was the animal hunt, or venatio. A vast variety of wild beasts, mainly from Africa, were used. Hippos, lions, giraffes and ostriches were just a sample of the exotic animals that were on display during these hunts. In fact, the engineering of the Colosseum was so advanced that special pulleys and panels were even constructed to support the larger animals such as elephants and rhinos. Battles and venatios were often staged in the midst of ornate sets with movable trees and buildings.

Simulated sea battles were also routine occurrences at the Colosseum. Accounts of the opening games held by Titus in 80AD illustrate the amphitheater as being filled with water while horses and bulls swam inside it. Dramas representing mythological selections were also held in the arena. A slew of artists, engineers and architects would construct faux forests that were used as the backdrop for plays. In some cases, actors were even executed (either by beasts or fire) in order to recreate a fabled story.

The Colosseum remained operating for nearly five centuries yet there is evidence of many changes, additions and repairs. Natural causes brought about a considerable amount of damage to the building. In the 3rd century, the upper floors caught on fire due to a thunderbolt and successive earthquakes, between the 5th and 8th centuries, also caused much destruction.

Architecturally, the Colosseum is an entirely self-supporting structure. It is elliptically shaped and is 615 ft. long, by 510 ft. wide, with a foundation of 6 acres.

The outer wall is made up of over 3,000 ft. of travertine stone, which has, for obvious reasons, suffered widespread destruction over time. The north side of the wall remains standing and the existing exterior is in effect the original interior wall.

The arches in the second- and third-floor walkways contain statues, venerating divinities and other figures from Classical mythology.

Because the Colosseum was used for public events, a retractable covering, known as the velarium, was added in order to keep the audience comfortable during bad weather.

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